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Article: Backdraft (Story Structure/Breakdown)

Backdraft Story Structure Breakdown - Image of Movie Film Poster

Backdraft (Story Structure/Breakdown)

Written by Gregory Widen
Directed by Ron Howard

OPENING IMAGE - Two young brothers argue inside a fire station.

Point of Attack

Chicago, 1971. Young Brian McCaffrey accompanies his firefighter father to a call. He watches as his father saves a child and is then killed in an explosion. Brian is comforted by fellow firefighter, John "Axe" Adcox.

SET UP - 20 years later, Brian graduates from the firefighting academy, after previously quitting. Brian has a habit of starting and quitting numerous careers and jobs over the years. Businessman Alan Seagrave is killed in an explosive fire when he opens his front door. Arson Investigator Donald "Shadow" Rimgale arrives on scene to a fire, as does Alderman Marty Swayzak - who is running for mayor - and his aide, Jennifer. The two question Shadow about the death of Seagrave and accuse Shadow of dragging out the case because of Swayzak's budget cuts, which have caused the closing of fire stations - reducing or eliminating backup for fire calls and putting firefighters in danger. Fire Lieutenant Stephen McCaffrey (Brian's older brother) threatens Swayzak and blames him for the death of three firefighters.

Inciting Incident | Catalyst

Brian learns that he is assigned to Engine/Station 17 under the command of his brother Stephen (where he will also work alongside Axe, who over the years has becomes like a father figure or uncle to the two brothers).

Call to Action (and Debate)

Brian and Stephen have a combative relationship. Brian doesn't finish what he starts, and Steven is concerned Brian won't be able to cut it as a firefighter (Stephen's true concern is that his brother will get injured or killed, or someone else will). The question is: Will Brian commit to doing what is necessary to be a good firefighter or will he quit?

First Turning Point | Plot Point 1

Brian's first day as a firefighter with Engine 17.

SUCCESS & FAILURE - A series of fire calls, hazing rituals, and training exercises test Brian's ability and resolve as a firefighter, and his relationship with his brother. 

B-STORYLINE - Stephen's deteriorating relationship with his estranged wife, Helen. 

C-STORYLINE - Brian's evolving relationship with his ex-girlfriend (and Swayzak aide), Jennifer.


During a fire rescue, Brian hesitates, and believes he doesn't have what it takes to be a good fireman. He quits Engine 17 and accepts a job working with Shadow investigating arsons.

DESCENT - Businessman Donald Cosgrove is killed by an explosive fire when opening a door to his office. Shadow and Brian discover the arsons they are investigating all produce a backdraft and explosion that blows out the flame before firefighters arrive, and each scene also has traces of triptochlorate. Brian's good friend and firefighter Tim is badly injured at a fire that kills a third victim, businessman Jeffrey Holcomb, in another explosive fire that produced a backdraft. Brian and the other firefighters blame Steven for taking too many risks. Brian and Steven have a physical fight. Shadow and Brian realize the three murder victims were partners with Swayzak in a company called Lakeside Dynamics. Jennifer reluctantly gives Swayzak's files to Brian. The files prove Seagrave, Cosgrove and Holcomb wrote phony reports for Swayzak to legitimize the closing of firehouses, he then turned the fire stations into community centers and his company, Lakeside Dynamics, were given the lucrative construction contracts.

Crisis Point | Second Turning Point | Plot Point 2

Brian and Shadow find Swayzak unconscious in his home, and Brian is attacked by a hooded man who gets burned on the back by a flaming electrical socket. Shadow saves Brian and Swayzak from the fire but is injured in the explosion and is hospitalized.

REFLECTION & ENLIGHTENMENT - Brian visits incarcerated pyromaniac Ronald Bartel to gain insight about the fires. Ronald and Brian realize only a firefighter would create a backdraft. Brian initially suspects Stephen is the arsonist. While breaking into Stephen's locker at the firehouse, Brian notices a burn on Axe's back in the shape of an electrical socket.

RUN UP TO CLIMAX - At the fire station, Brian warns Stephen that Axe is the arsonist/murderer. Axe overhears the conversation, just as the fire alarm sounds. Brian grabs gear and jumps on board a fire truck to follow Stephen and Axe, but the vehicle crashes on the way to the fire call. Brian arrives on foot and climbs to the roof of the building, where Axe is confessing to Stephen that he set the fires and murdered Holcomb, Seagrave, and Cosgrove because firemen were dying due to the businessmen's actions.

Climax | Final Confrontation

Axe and Stephen spar. Brian almost dies in the fire but is saved by Stephen. Axe is killed in the fire, and Stephen is badly injured. Brian saves a group of trapped firefighters. Stephen dies from his wounds on the way to the hospital with Brian holding his hand.

Resolution | Denouement

A funeral and procession honors fallen firefighters Stephen and Axe. Brian and Shadow serve a subpoena on Alderman Swayzak during a press conference, destroying his mayoral campaign. Brian returns to firefighting and rides out on a call.

FINAL IMAGE - The fire truck rolls down the street toward a fire, as the city skyline is revealed.

Get the Movie: Digital Film (AppleTV)